DOJ Files Suit Against First Safe Injection Sites

A joint civil lawsuit led by Pennsylvania-based prosecutors and the Department of Justice (DOJ) in Washington DC is seeking to determine the legality of safe injection sites. While groups in cities around the country are considering safe injection sites as a way to combat the dangers of the opioid epidemic, Philadelphia is poised to be the first to actually open one, pending this legal decision.

Last month, the nonprofit Safehouse hired Jeannette “Jen” Bowles to serve as executive director to lead the organization’s efforts to open a safe or supervised injection site in Philadelphia.

Bowles describes the sites as creating a nonjudgmental space where addicts can receive services.

She explains, “[A supervised injection site] enables us to react and respond [to an overdose] almost immediately, while simultaneously providing other services. This isn’t about walk in, consume drugs, and leave. There’s a host of other social and medical services afforded to people within this intervention.”

Conversely, William McSwain, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, argues, “"This is in-your-face illegal activity using some of the most deadly, dangerous drugs that are on the streets. We have a responsibility to step in.”

However, McSwain also acknowledges the delicacy of this situation and the ultimate goal shared by both parties to reduce the number of overdose deaths in the city.

McSwain continues, “We're not bringing a criminal case right now. We're not arresting anybody. We're not asking to forfeit property. We're not looking to be heavy-handed. This can serve everyone's interest, in order to find out what the court thinks of this. But this, in our view, is illegal.”

Elected officials in Denver, Vermont, Delaware, and San Francisco have advocated for similar safe injection site proposals. This case can set the precedent to determine if these sites are legally sound.

In a December 2017 statement, then-Attorney General Jeff Session warned that safe injection sites may be vulnerable to criminal investigation by federal law enforcement.

According to the suit, prosecutors believe a supervised injection site would violate a section of the Controlled Substance Act added in the 1980s to shut down crack houses during the crack epidemic.

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